Nicholson Baker ’79’s quest to save old newspapers from
oblivion. by Edgar Allen Beem
Nicholson Baker '79
Nicholson Baker, a tall, scholarly man, balding and bearded, is perusing
old bound volumes of the New York World through rimless glasses when he
comes across a sensational full-color 1952 article about Marilyn Monroe
entitled “They Call Her The Blowtorch Blonde.” American’s
Sweetheart is wearing a ruffle bandeau that makes her look like a Tahitian
princess. Baker is so amused and taken with both the image and the title
that he immediately places the bound volume beneath a quintet of spotlights
and, using a hand-held digital camera, takes a picture of it. The Marilyn
layout will soon thereafter appear on www.oldpapers.org.
Oldpapers.org is the website of the American Newspaper Repository, the
nonprofit corporation Baker established in 1999 as part of his campaign
to save old newspapers from disappearing entirely as libraries microfilm
and discard them. The other major weapon in Baker’s preservationist
arsenal is Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, a book that
rocked the library world last year with its detailed indictment of major
libraries—principally the Library of Congress—for failing
to preserve actual copies of the country’s greatest newspapers.
The American Newspaper Repository occupies a 6,000-square-foot space on
the first floor of a former textile mill in Rollinsford, New Hampshire,
just a short walk across the Salmon Falls River from the village of South
Berwick, Maine, where Baker lives. The rest of the 1848 brick mill building
is occupied by a thermal underwear company, several other small businesses,
and some artists’ studios. The repository’s large, cool rectangular
factory room is filled with approximately 5,000 bound volumes of newspapers—chief
among them Joseph Pulitzer’s World, New York Herald Tribune, Chicago
Tribune, and the New York Times—arrayed on high metal shelves and
wooden pallets on the floor. Hundreds of institutions own these newspapers
on microfilm, but that’s exactly the problem. The wholesale embrace
of microform reproduction by libraries and research institutions mean
that real copies of these newspapers are becoming extinct.
“You can’t get more important urban documents,” says
Baker, surveying the bound volumes stacked before him. “The New
York World used to publish a million copies a day and now there is only
Nicholson Baker, forty-five, is an unlikely savior. He is not a librarian,
historian, archivist, or conservator. He is a writer, a novelist, and
essayist whose peculiar body of writings has in common an almost obsessive
concern for minutiae.
“I think of myself as thorough,” says Baker, mildly objecting
to the use of the word obsession. Okay, saving old newspapers is not Baker’s
obsession, but it’s pretty darn close.
Nick Baker was born and brought up in Rochester, New York, where his father
ran an ad agency from the basement of the family home. Trained as a bassoonist,
Baker entered Eastman School of Music with the intention of becoming a
composer, but in school, he recognized the limits of his own musical talents
and gave up on a career in music. Inspired in part by Frank Conroy’s
wonderful 1967 childhood memoir Stop-Time (in which Conroy heads off to
Haverford College to make a new start in the world for himself), Baker
transferred to Haverford where he fell in love with literature and a bookish
young woman named Margaret Brentano. Baker and Brentano were married in
1985 and, two years later, Baker embarked on his literary career with
the publication of his first novel, The Mezzanine.
The Mezzanine established Nicholson Baker as the fictional master of trivia,
the novel consisting as it does of a sustained meditation on such things
as why straws don’t sink in milk cartons and whether hot-air blowers
are more sanitary than towels for drying hands. The entire book takes
place during the course of a character’s lunchtime escalator ride.
Baker followed his debut with a novel in the form of a man’s thoughts
while bottle feeding his baby (Room Temperature), another that explores
the inner life and thoughts of a nine-year-old girl (The Everlasting Story
of Nory), a book about the author’s obsession (there’s that
word again) with writer John Updike (U and I), and his bestsellers, a
pair of erotic novels—The Fermata (about a young man who uses his
ability to stop time to undress women) and Vox (the phone sex novel that
Clinton paramour Monica Lewinsky gave to her libidinous boss).
Both Baker’s novels and his essays are characterized by a penchant
for taking the incidental seriously. Shoelaces, fingernail clippers, movie
projectors, punctuation, the history of the word lumber, putting on socks,
and picking one’s nose have all come in for close texture scrutiny
in Baker’s work.
“My books do home in on certain details in my life, but that’s
what we think about,” Baker explains. “I try to put things
in their true proportions. “
Nicholson Baker’s talent, then, lies in questioning the unquestioned
and paying close attention to the unexamined. Micro-filming old newspapers
and magazines, for instance, seems like such a convenient solution to
making these documents available for posterity, but, as Baker argues in
Double Fold, it also results in the loss of the real thing if the originals
are destroyed and discarded in the process. If there is a subtext to virtually
everything Nicholson has written, it might be the search for reality in
an over-mediated and intellectualized world.
Baker’s library offensive began in 1994 with an article he published
in The New Yorker about the passing of the venerable card catalogue from
American libraries. The New Yorker piece branded Nicholson Baker as a
crank and a library critic when, in fact, he is a great fan of libraries.
“The library is such a good idea, such a good idea,” Baker
enthuses. “The American people are publishing all this stuff and
the library is a central place to keep what we can’t own individually.
Why it’s so troubling is that the people who inherited this great
idea don’t make the decisions we thought they were making. The idea
only works if you keep up the things you are collecting.”
In the course of haunting the stacks of libraries across the country,
Baker discovered the real tragedy was not the passing of the card catalogue
but rather the discarding of books and periodicals by major research libraries.
Having been attacked in academic circles for not properly documenting
his card catalogue article, Baker set about an exhaustive investigation
of the history and practice of microfilm reproduction of newspapers that
resulted in a 370-page book with 80 pages of footnotes and references.
Double Fold takes its title from the test (folding the lower right corner
of a random page back and forth) that many libraries use to determine
the brittleness—and therefore the usefulness—of old books
and newspapers. The book is so dense with the arcane history of microfilming
technology and policy that Baker believes few of its initial critics within
the library world had actually read it. Baker never suggests that every
library everywhere should save decades and centuries worth of old newspapers.
He simply argues that some major research libraries should maintain actual
runs of the newspapers that reported the life of the nation as it was
“This is the marrow. This is the historical center of the twentieth
century,” says Baker of the newspapers reposing in the Rollinsford
Mill. “This is what happened and appeared before the public in the
Baker acquired most of the American Newspaper Repository’s collection
in the fall of 1999 at an auction of newspapers being discarded by the
British Library in London. After cashing in a personal retirement account
for $50,000, Baker received major grants from the McArthur Foundation
($150,000) and the Knight Foundation ($100,000) to purchase runs of close
to 100 newspapers and magazines and establish the repository. Smaller
contributions that have come in response to the publication of Double
Fold and the media attention it has generated have helped pay the American
Newspaper Repository’s $2,000 a month rent. Baker estimates that
he now has about five months’ worth of rent money on hand and is
in the process of another round of fundraising.
Baker says the primary response he has had from libraries is that preserving
old news papers is an “outrageously expensive and near impossible
task.” He rejects this vehemently.
“The amount of space newspapers take up is not that great. That
is a myth,” insists Baker. “Newspapers are wonderfully compact.
They have the money to do this. We’re talking about maybe two Best
Buys [to house a national newspaper repository]. The National Endowment
for the Humanities has spent $115 million on microfilming. Most of that
money has contributed to the loss of history rather than the preservation
Baker also rejects the argument that saving hard copies of old newspapers
is not cost-effective because they sit gathering dust for years and get
very little use
“That’s the point,” Baker argues. “Research libraries
are supposed to hold onto things that are little used. That’s where
all the discoveries are made. That’s where the beauties are.”
In the conclusion of Double Fold, Baker makes four recommendations: 1)
that libraries publish lists of the material they are planning to discard,
2) that the Library of Congress lease or build a true national depository
for old books and periodicals, 3) that several libraries begin saving
current newspapers in bound form, and 4) that the National Endowment for
the Humanities either abolish the U.S. Newspaper and Brittle Books program,
or require that all microfilms and digital scanning be nondestructive
and that originals be saved.
The universal embrace of microfilm reproduction is as true in Maine as
everywhere else. Though the Maine Historical Society is cited in Double
Fold as an example of a library that saves newspaper originals even after
it has microfilmed them, Maine Historical Society only microfilms “historical”
newspapers. It does not save or microfilm current newspapers. The irony
here, of course, is that the only reason historical newspapers exist is
that someone saw fit to save them when they were new. In the future, thanks
to microfilming, there may not be any historical newspapers.
Publishers are often to source of a last resort for actual copies of their
newpapers, but, in Portland, the publishers of Portland Press Herald and
Maine Sunday Telegram stopped binding copies decades ago. The publishers
of the Bangor Daily News, however, do keep bound archival copies of their
newspaper. The entire run of the Bangor Daily News (1899 to the present)
is kept under lock and key in a specially designed 600-square-foot room,
but there is no access to the public or to scholars.
“How will people be able to do local history in seventy-five years?”
says Nicholson Baker. “It depends on what you keep now. I have made
the point that the Library of Congress is not going to do it. We’ve
got to be responsible for our own local libraries.”
Predictably, Nick and Margaret Baker have become active in their local
library and historical society since moving to South Berwick in 1998.
They are helping to inventory the local holdings, and Margaret is compiling
oral histories from some of the elderly people she meets through volunteering
in the Meals on Wheels program.
The Bakers and their two children, Alice, now fifteen, and Elias, now
eight, moved to South Berwick from Berkeley, California, largely, says
Baker, in search of affordable housing in a quiet town where he could
write without distraction. They purchased an old dairy farm on the edge
of the village based on the sole criteria that Nick, 6’4”,
be able to fit through the doors on the second floor.
“We just liked the sanity of the place,” says Baker of the
move to South Berwick. “It’s turned out to be a really good
decision. I love it here.”
Ironically, the quiet, writerly life Nicholson was searching for along
the Maine-New Hampshire border has largely eluded him since the publication
of Double Fold. “It’s made me a more public kind of writer
than I’d prefer to be,” says Baker of the publicity and debate
engendered by Double Fold. “That’s why I’ve deliberately
stayed away from living in big cities.”
Since Double Fold was published, Baker has been in constant demand to
speak about and defend his position on saving old newspapers at meetings
of the American Library Association and the Bibliographical Society of
America, and at libraries from Boston to Seattle. Typically, his speeches
take the form of a slide show. His slides from the World, for instance,
graphically make the point that nineteenth-and early twentieth-century
newspapers were far more colorful, lively, and creative than newspapers
today, a point that can be lost in grainy black microfilm reproduction.
“When people see what I’m referring to,” says Baker,
“when they see pictures of the originals and pictures of the microfilm,
it’s the pictures that convince people.”
While Baker does not think his old newspaper crusade has made any difference
at all in the policies of the Library of Congress, he does believe Double
Fold has raised public and professional awareness of the value of preserving
“The notion that to get a good digital copy you have to destroy
the original is now being questioned,” he says.
Though he is a private man somewhat uncomfortable as a public figure,
Baker says, “I do like the kind of low-level muckraking I do,”
and he plans to continue it. His current plan is to write fiction and
nonfiction in alternating years. His new novel, A Box of Matches (Random
House) came out in January.
As to the future of the American Newspaper Repository, Baker hopes it
will move out of the Rollinsford mill in the not too distant future. He
is currently seeking a permanent home for the old newspapers he rescued
“I can’t be the keeper of the nation’s newspapers,”
says the writer from South Berwick. “I’m hoping this whole
thing will have a happy ending and become part of a big research collection.”